The view west from my house
Imagine how it would feel to lose your first born son. Worse, imagine him committing suicide; your golden boy kneeling into a noose, choosing death over any comfort you might offer. And as the tide of grief engulfed you, imagine learning that your partner and lifelong love has terminal cancer. Imagine she dies within a year.
The truth is I can't imagine how that would feel.
Sure, I can string some words together, probably clichéd - curl up and die, cry my heart out - but the reality is I have little conception of the visceral hurt, the psychological trauma such losses would bring. The losses I have experienced seem trivial by comparison- or at least more natural and in their proper place. I have no idea what I would do; how I'd respond; where I would go.
My friend Jim Perrin faced these horrors, and more. And he went West - drawn to the Atlantic shores of Ireland, his instinct to reach out for the recuperative power of landscape. He went West, he writes in his new book, because the West is the landscape of loss; because the West is where the light dies. But going West was as much a mental as physical journey; in the landscape of the West he found not only solace, but also the strength to take the first faltering step out of grief's labyrinth.
West is an extraordinary book: beautifully written, heartfelt, nauseating; it is poetic and scholarly, bawdy and funny; it is the story of unimaginable grief, a story we would never wish on ourselves. And yet it is also a love story; as much about life as it is about loss - if not exactly embracing his sorrow, he at least shows us the possibility of facing it, and even finding joy in our memories.
Because I know Jim and his story, I have thought a lot about his central theme of looking West. Is there something about The West I wonder, that draws us and provides solace for loss? In a literal sense, I think not, though I suspect Jim would counter that I am missing the importance of our myths and cultural subconscious. Perhaps, but to me it is as relevant that he turned to the sea. I was brought up on Tyneside, where the idea of Coast and East are synonymous - and yet the sea has always, in my mind, represented a place of escape, and to some extent of pilgrimage too.
But I agree with Jim in a broader sense. I agree that landscape, and wilderness in particular, has the power to heal, and also to reveal - often showing us to be stronger than we might imagine. Being 'in' the landscape is more than the journey or the view - it is about finding ourselves as much as finding the way; about looking inward as much as outward, and thereby glimpsing truths to which we are otherwise blind.
All my adult life I have climbed and walked and kayaked and cycled, often in extreme and wonderful landscapes; but I have done this as much for what I bring back to my 'normal life', as for the excitement or beauty that is always inseparable from any particular spot. Along the way I have found special places; places to which I habitually return. It is only conjecture, but if faced with a similar loss to Jim's, I suspect these are the places I would go.
Perhaps we each have our own West, it's position on the map less relevant than our memory, preference, history... Jim's West may be more literal than mine, but then his need was more compelling, his life-journey more bereft. But the triumph of his book, is that it transcends the personal and introspective - West is no writing as therapy dirge- to become something not only poignant, but relevant to us all. Ultimately, West is the story of how we might come through.